I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Melton Mowbray bills itself as the United Kingdom's “Rural Capital of Food.” This claim probably does not relate to the large factory that turns out four million items of grub for pets a day.
History of the Pork Pie
A case of unintended consequences.
Between 1750 and 1850, Britain passed laws converting common land into the private property of large landowners. From this sprang a thriving dairy industry and, therefore, cheese making.
A waste product of cheese making is whey, which turns out to be a yummy addition to the diet of pigs. So, a pork industry developed and the good people of Melton Mowbray found ingenious ways of preparing the meat. Hence—ta da—the pork pie.
Thanks to the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association for this narrative, which adds, “Originally baked in a clay pot covered with a rough pastry, the pork pie evolved to resemble a ‘parcel’ of pastry wrapped around a pork filling. This allowed the pie to be carried whilst at work (agricultural workers, grooms, and hunt servants would often carry them), and the pastry case was discarded before eating.”
Now, biffing pastry into a ditch is a crying shame. However, upon further investigation, it turns out the pastry from those early pies was tough and inedible.
The writer grew up in genuine pork pie country. Stamford, Lincolnshire had four or five local pork butchers and they all offered their versions of the pie. Some people always bought their pork pies at Fancourt’s, while others swore that Nelson's pies were the best. Sadly, Nelson's is the only pork pie maker left, but it seems to be thriving. So, by default, it becomes the best producer.
There are dozens of versions of Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, but the authentic beast can only be found in independent butcher shops in the south-east Midlands of England. Never, ever will you find a proper Melton Mowbray pork pie in a supermarket.
The real deal has been granted Protected Geographical Indication; this means that to carry the name Melton Mowbray pork pie, it must be made in the traditional way and close to the town that gives it its name. All other variations must be called Melton Mowbray-style pork pies.
The need for accurate labelling might explain why the pie lady at a farmers’ market in Canada labels her product “Molten Melbury Pork Pies.” More likely, it displays a loose grasp of the English language as she also has a “Stake and Kidney Pie” on offer.
More in hope than expectation, the writer bought one of these Molten Melbury creations. It was ghastly and was long ago consigned to the compost bin.
Making a Pork Pie
What follows is not a recipe with quantities and temperatures, but a general description of how a Melton Mowbray pork pie is made. Internet recipes won’t satisfy the purists who demand the traditional pie made by only a dozen or so butchers.
Start with coarsely chopped pork shoulder and belly and add salt and pepper. Some, but not the sticklers for the genuine product, might add a little thyme, mace, and sage.
The pastry is a bit tricky; it’s called a hot-water raised pastry. It’s a mixture of flour, lard, and water. The lard is heated in water until it melts then the flour is stirred in. When it’s cool enough to handle it’s kneaded until smooth and rolled out.
Here’s where the difficult part comes in. The bottom and sides of the crust are raised by hand around a wooden mould, not pushed into a container like most pies. This should be done while the pastry is still hot and requires a high level of skill to keep it from slumping into a heap. The pie is then baked free-standing, no hoops or tins, so the sides belly out a bit.
Once cooked, pork jelly, made from boiled trotters, is poured into a hole in the top crust and the pie is cooled.
Keef Cooks a British Pork Pie and Cheats a Little
The real Melton Mowbray pork pie is always eaten cold along with pickled onions, pickled cabbage, and/or chutney. If there is an annoying nutritionist around, then by all means, toss some salad onto the plate.
Heating a pork pie must never be done. It causes the jelly and fat melt so that it oozes out and forms an unappetizing, greasy lake around the pie. This is a relationship killer. Don’t do it. Just don’t.
Oh, and the remarkable cheese that should be called “Melton Mowbray cheese” but isn’t? It’s known as Stilton cheese and is the subject of another article.
Sir Geoffrey Boycott was a top-class English cricket batsman who played for the national team. He now does cricket commentary on the BBC. He can get a bit irascible when a player makes a bad error and usually says, “A pork pie has more brains than him.”
The Guinness people tell us the most expensive pie in the world was made by the Fence Gate Inn in Lancashire, England. Contents included Japanese wagyu beef, Chinese matsutake mushrooms, which are so valuable they are gathered under the watchful eye of guards, and truffles. The gravy was made using a couple of bottles of 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild wine (although the word gravy doesn’t seem to do justice to the concoction). Eight guests enjoyed this creation, each paying £1,024 a slice ($1,200), in November 2005. Oh, and the crust was sprinkled with gold leaf.
William Shakespeare killed off 74 people in his 38 plays. His favourite method of offing a character was stabbing, which he did to 30 victims. In Titus Andronicus, his main character seeks to settle scores with Queen Tamora for her evil deeds, and comes up with the unique strategy of serving her pies into which he has baked her two sons. What’s that about “revenge is a dish best served cold?”
- “Nigel Slater’s Pork Pie Recipe.” Nigel Slater, The Guardian, May 23, 2010.
- BBC’s Pork Pie Recipe.
- Nelson’s High Class Butchers.
- Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association.
- Dickinson and Morris.
- “British Pie Week: 10 things you never Knew about Pies.” Saffron Alexander, The Telegraph, March 7, 2016.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor